The Importance of Being Earnest (An Essay On The Scarlet Letter)

Language is a referential process of creating meaning; each word operates within a series of structures including history and people, objects and ideas, places and things. These structures create a symbolic framework in which language functions, and this associative nature of language is why written texts are able to convey both a simple story of characters interacting within a setting, while at the same time conveying a subtext suggesting that the characters are more than a textual re-creation of real people. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, is, in terms of text, a simple story of an affair between a woman and a minister, and how that affair and the subsequent love-child affects the mother, Hester Prynne, and the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Their story then conveys a lesson on the sin of adultery and pre-marital sex. However, the text tells more than a moral story, and conveys a message deeper than abstinence: through Arthur Dimmesdale, Hawthorne demonstrates the importance of living an honest life.

Hawthorne states clearly in The Scarlet Letter that one of the lessons to be learned from “The poor minister’s miserable experience” is “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”” (Hawthorne 199), and this statement is the very heart of Hawthorne’s demonstration of the value of honesty. “Be true” speaks clearly enough, and Hawthorne takes the idea further by commanding the reader to “show freely” any unpleasant traits. However, he demands this level of honesty not because doing so is a more accurate depiction of human insufficiency, but because the act of lying creates inner turmoil which consumes the liar and prevents him or her from moving on to a higher level of spiritual development. Dimmesdale, when read with ‘truth’ in mind, becomes a symbol for spiritual progression as shown by three features of his character: his position as a minister, his guilty torment, and his inability to ‘move on’ until he’s confessed his guilt.

Dimmesdale’s role as minister (a spiritual leader) acts as a way to show both the fear of losing reputation, and the spirit in general. He’s described by Hawthorne as “the man of ethereal attributes” (119), and is deemed by his fellow clergyman as “a miracle of holiness” (119), both of which indicate a being nearer spirit than flesh. This and the minister’s general sickness indicate a man distanced from the physical, and approaching more and more the spiritual world. Ironically, his spiritual excellence is largely the result of his burden of untruth and hypocrisy. A burden of torment he struggles with throughout the text in the form of his constant illness, and manifested in the false doctor Chillingworth. However, Dimmesdale’s torment begins even before Chillingworth appears as the doctor.

During Hester Pryne’s public denouncement on the scaffold Dimmesdale urges her to tell the congregation who the father of the child is, saying “Be not silent for any mistaken pity and tenderness for him…though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, … better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life” (67). Here Dimmesdale both alludes to his own guilt, referring to the “high place” where he stood, and attempts to avoid personally revealing the secret by allowing the charge to come from Hester. This fails, however, because he must confess his wrongs with his own mouth, and since he would not do so at that moment he chooses to remain anonymous and guilty, and enters into a state of torment that prolongs his guilty life.

Here Chillingworth enters as a manifestation of guilt, tormenting Dimmesdale under the guise of a healer. Hawthorne writes that Chillingworth, after verifying the minister’s guilt, “became, thenceforth, not a spectator only, but a chief actor, in the poor minister’s interior world” (117), demonstrating through Chillingworth that a guilty conscious prohibits spiritual strength through torment, and shows the effects of the torment through Dimmesdale’s descent into a weaker and weaker state. A torment Dimmesdale can only escape from by first accepting his guilt privately, then publicly acknowledging his fault, and by doing this Dimmesdale is allowed to continue forward as spiritual emblem.

Hawthorne shows this through the moments when Dimmesdale is able to align his actions with the truth of his guilt, that is, when the minister is able to privately accept his guilt. One moment comes when the minister stands on the scaffold of shame late one night, and sees Hester and Pearl, their child, on their way home from a death bed. He calls them up to stand with him and holds their hands, showing the sleeping world his secret. Doing this “there came what seemed a tumultuous rush of new life… pouring like a torrent into his heart, and hurrying through all his veins, as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system” (126). Here the warm, new life of truth invades Dimmesdale’s guilt ridden heart, suggesting that aligning himself with earnestness by confessing his guilt is essential for his step forward as a spiritual emblem.

Later, Dimmesdale himself bemoans his lack of honesty when he is again alone with Hester and says, “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am!” (153). Relief, in short, is what comes for those spirits who walk in truth. However, Dimmesdale’s confession to Hester and Pearl is, nonetheless, hidden the darkness of night and the forest, making it incomplete. The truth must be shown in the light of day, in front of the whole congregation in order to have value. For Hawthorne, the suitable stage for confession is the scaffold where Dimmesdale refused to stand, a place of both shame and elevation, which allows Dimmesdale to both reveal himself and rise to another level of spiritual well-being.

Chillingworth, the embodiment of poor Dimmesdale’s guilt, expresses the necessity of the minister’s confession on the scaffold, “‘Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,’ Said he, looking darkly at the clergyman, ‘there was no one place so secret, – no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me, – save on this very scaffold!’” (195). The scaffold is essential because the guilt derived less from the adulterous act, and more from Dimmesdale’s fear of standing with Hester in the first place and being an honest man. Had he done so, he would have been guilty of a sin, but would have walked in open truth where guilt has little power.

Reading The Scarlet Letter in this way is possible because the simple, direct language employed by Hawthorne to describe the anxiety of the minister’s experiences, and stating that the lesson from the ordeal is: “Be True!” (199). Hawthorne uses settings and images that suggest the difference between private confession hidden in darkness, and public confession exalted on a high place in the light. The characters are used to portray qualities of the minister’s guilt, and he is only able to progress spirituality by taking responsibility for his sin in broad daylight as made evident by Chillingworth’s inability to act when the minister ascends the scaffold. Through Dimmesdale’s story in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne demonstrates that an honest life, though perhaps one of shame, is a better life, and shows the vital import of being earnest.

Citation: Murfin, Ross. The Scarlet Letter (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism Series). 2nd Ed . Bedford/St. Martins: New York, 2006. Print. Pages in text.


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